OUR HISTORY: Spiritual experiences draw visitors to district

A recent survey of tourism attractions in the Mission area listed spiritual experiences as a major draw. One of the most outstanding cultural landscapes in the area, Westminster Abbey, located on a hill northeast of the town centre, with a commanding view up the Fraser River valley, is home to the Benedictine monks. Visitors are attracted by the magnificent abbey church, completed in 1982. Stunning architecture, stained glass windows, and religious art provide a truly remarkable experience to people from around the world.

One of the most striking features is the Pfitzer Bell Tower, which appears on many Mission area logos, and can be seen against the skyline by anyone arriving from the east. In 1992, the Vancouver Sun featured “A Love Story” about Kenyon Reynolds and his beloved wife Patricia, who married in 1915. A successful engineer and partner in gas exploration, Kenyon sold out to Standard Oil of California, and at the age of 34, became a millionaire. Travel, business interests, and gardening filled their lives, until Patricia suddenly died of cancer in 1945. Driven by grief, Kenyon decided to give away his money, enrol at the Seminary of Christ the King, takes vows as a monk, and is ordained as Father Bede in 1951. Patricia’s family — the Pfitzers — donate the shares of a family trust to construct a bell tower; Patricia is interred in a marble crypt in the lower vault of the tower. When Father Bede dies in 1989 at age 97, he is interred in the monastery’s crypt on the slope above the river.

Every afternoon, the 10 bells from the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry in England which are installed in the tower can be heard ringing out from locations throughout Hatzic and Mission area — a reminder of the millionaire-turned-monk, his love for his wife, and his abiding faith.

The grounds of Westminster Abbey provide a natural setting for quiet walks. Although the grounds are not a public park, a series of quiet pathways lead through lightly forested areas to a viewpoint overlooking Hatzic, the Fraser River and Coast Mountain range.

Benedictine monks arrived in B.C. from Oregon in 1939, located first in Ladner and then in Burnaby; in 1954, the Abbey and seminary moved to Mission. The new abbey, church, and seminary were designed by the Norwegian architect, Asbjørn Gåthe. A farm was quickly established to ensure food self-sufficiency; pigs, cattle, chickens and vegetables provide most of the needs of approximately 30 monks, as well as students and guests. The abbey, including the farm and woods, covers over 70 hectares of land.

The Seminary of Christ the King was completed and blessed in 1957; it provides both high school completion and university level training, and grants bachelor of art and theology degrees. The students are taught by the monks, as well as volunteer teachers. A guest house for retreats was completed in 1971, and a gymnasium–auditorium was added in 1977.

Father Dunstan Massey is the abbey’s resident artist. He has painted several frescoes around the abbey, and he has also created a series of concrete bas-reliefs affixed to pillars inside the church.

Benedictine monks live by the motto of their order, Ora et Labora, “Pray and Work;” they pray the Liturgy of the Hours at several times through the day. These are usually sung publicly in the church; information on services can be found on their website. Visitors are expected to respect the quiet and peaceful atmosphere, wear appropriate clothing (no shorts) and visit on weekdays from 1:30 to 4 p.m., and on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m.; special services at Christmas and Easter fill the abbey church, and information on services can be found at westminsterabbey.ca.

Sharon Syrette is writing a number of columns on Mission parks and trails history in recognition of BC Heritage Week’s theme of parks and nature preserves.

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